South Africa's Climate change negotiator Alf Wills speaks abouth his role of the leading the the SA team to Cop 17 happening in Durban next month. Picture:Paballo Thekiso

Alf Wills isn’t getting much sleep. His days and nights are consumed by trying to figure out how South Africa is going to “pull a deal out of the bag” at the upcoming UN climate change talks.

“This one is really high-pressure,” says Wills, chief negotiator of climate change at the Department of Environmental Affairs about the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP17) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which starts next month in Durban.

“As the host country and the incoming president, it does put a lot of responsibility on us to facilitate a credible and meaningful outcome.”

Wills, 54, will lead negotiators who will seek to avert the death of the Kyoto Protocol, an international climate agreement drawn up in the 1990s to cut dangerous greenhouse gas emissions. Its first commitment period expires in December next year.

“The fundamental challenge of Durban is whether or not we’ll be able to preserve the Kyoto Protocol. The protocol is just a means to an end, really. The fundamental reason we need to preserve it going forward is because… we’ve spent the past 20 years negotiating this set of international rules. That’s 20 years of negotiation you don’t want to lose. We have the opportunity to improve that system. Whether or not you then kind of cut and paste those rules from Kyoto into some kind of new instrument to replace Kyoto, that decision is some way down the track.”

The prospect of securing a binding agreement is unlikely, but Wills says that’s not the point. “I think legally binding outcomes are a very false measure of success. If it was, we should have 17 protocols by now. We only have one.”

Wills became a climate negotiator “by accident” in 2002 when, as head of the Department of Agriculture in North West, he was tasked to negotiate food security issues at the World Summit on Sustainable Development. “It appeared I had some kind of aptitude for this kind of work and I ended up leading the negotiating team.” A decade later, he is a veteran at the negotiating table of the climate talks and the all-night negotiating marathons that often result.

“You’ve got to be a good listener and be able to think and analyse systematically. You need to be able to let go of your own ego. Basically, the secret of a successful negotiation is to persuade the other person that your position is actually his or her idea. The person you’re negotiating with needs to feel like they’ve won.”

In his job, he reconnects with his scientific roots as an ecologist. “You need to formulate your positions based on science. It’s got to be based on real evidence. And although I’m not doing the research myself, I certainly have to keep up with what’s going on in relation to the science of climate. That’s really the most enjoyable part of this job.”

In Durban, the EU and other European states will be ready to take on a second commitment period to Kyoto but only if the US, which is not a signatory to it, makes comparable commitments. Russia, Japan, and Canada do not want to sign up to a second commitment period and believe major developing countries must embark on deeper carbon reductions.

There are other unresolved issues, including trade and intellectual property rights. “We’ve been negotiating on these issues since 2004 without success.”

Wills remains optimistic. “You have to be. I think we’re going to get a very good outcome in Durban. Global politics are not on our side, with Europe and the debt crisis, the financial crisis and President Obama’s administration under siege (by Republicans) and China changing leadership.”

South Africa has a responsibility to lead in actual emissions reductions for Africa and facilitate a global solution.

With the country’s 90 percent reliance on dirty fossil fuels, South Africa is historically Africa’s biggest polluter. It now accounts for just under half of the continent’s emissions, along with the DRC and Nigeria.

“Africa is going to be poorer, the hardest hit, by climate change,” he says.

“I don’t think people sufficiently understand the risks we face. Unfortunately it’s the rural poor who are the most vulnerable to floods, drought, tornadoes,” he says.

He cites the climate-related shift in fisheries over the past decade, plunging West Coast communities into poverty. “All the lobster processing facilities are up the West Coast, but all the lobster being caught is now on the South Coast, about 300km away. That’s just one example of the kind of impact we can increasingly expect.

“The winter rainfall region is moving southwards so the whole wine industry is moving into the sea. The deciduous fruit industry is falling into the sea. The wheat industry is moving southwards by 200km, 300km. Again you have stranded assets.”

Wills has bought a smallholding of virgin land to offset his carbon emissions. In the next month alone he travels to China, the US, Chile and Madrid.

“Next year, I’m taking a break,” he smiles. “I want a job where there’s not so much travelling involved.” - Saturday Star